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The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Around the NBA in Early January

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The NBA regular season is almost at its midpoint, and the "small sample sizes" are no longer small. Some teams are just starting to shift into gear (looking at you Clips) while others are falling back down to earth. Players' seasons can now be seen as legit breakouts or as almost certain catastrophes. Here is a look at a few of the best and worst stories from the first 35 games of the season.

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The Good:

The San Antonio Spurs: Some people thought the Spurs would finally slow down this year. Others expected the team to eventually coalesce but have a below average regular season. A brave few thought they would be a great team. But nobody thought that San Antonio would be one of the best defensive teams of all time (and you could leave defensive out of that without too much argument). Kawhi Leonard has morphed from terrific defender and decent three point shooter to one of the 10 best players in the NBA. With Steph Curry's injury the Spurs have surged well ahead of the Warriors in Net Rating and are only four games back of them in the loss column sporting a 30-6 record. The Spurs should only improve down the stretch as LaMarcus Aldridge continues to adjust to Coach Popovich and Danny Green recovers from an awful start to the season. And they are doing all of this with Pop resting his older players (Duncan and Ginobili have sat out six games, Aldridge and Leonard two). It has been an incredible season for SA, overshadowed only by an even more insane story line in Golden State.

CJ McCollum: In the four games prior to Damian Lillard's return to the Trailblazer lineup on Monday, McCollum put up massive numbers: 30.2 points per game on 54.5/46.6/60 shooting with 5.2 assists a game thrown in for good measure. On the season CJ is averaging 21 points per game with good efficiency and solid box score stats. In other words, he is the complete offensive package at shooting guard, and should win the "Most Improved Player" award handily. He also has just enough ball handling and passing ability to run the point if necessary, making him more unique than some other "pure" shooting guards. His main issue is on the defensive end, but his lack of size limits him there more than anything. McCollum showed bursts of promise his first two seasons and was a star player at Lehigh, but not many people thought he would be this good this quickly. Or ever. Look for his name on the All Star team in February.

The Bad:

Charlotte Hornets: Despite the brilliance of Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets have fallen back to a .500 record and are not playing well at the moment. Nicholas Batum and Jeremy Lamb are dinged up, Al Jefferson is out for another five weeks, and the mediocrity of the roster is starting to reveal itself. Tyler Hansbrough and Spencer Hawes have played a fair amount this season while PJ Hairston starts at shooting guard. Coach Steve Clifford has done exceptionally well so far this year and deserved the extension he received several weeks back, but it will be a struggle to get his team into the playoffs.

The Ugly:

Phoenix Suns: Yuck. The Suns have gone from a disappointing team with some issues to a full blown catastrophe in the past couple weeks. Their best player, Eric Bledsoe, is out for the season with a torn meniscus, forcing young players into bigger roles than they should be handling. Tyson Chandler, who was Phoenix's big free agent signing this summer, has been absolutely awful. He is putting up the worst numbers of his career since he left his teenage years and his defense has fallen off a cliff. Markieff Morris has been benched due to poor play and behavior, and will probably be traded soon. The coaching staff was thinned out a couple weeks ago. Head coach Jeff Hornacek is on the hot seat. Two years after he had a fantastic rookie season as the runner up for Coach of the Year, Hornacek has lost the team and looks helpless on the bench. Expect veterans such as Chandler, Mirza Teletovic, and PJ Tucker to get traded in the coming weeks.

Joe Johnson: Kobe Bryant has been taking all the spotlight with his poor season, thus taking the pressure off another struggling aged shooting guard. In his prime, Iso-Joe was underrated if anything: he was a terrific and fairly efficient scorer who rebounded well for his position, made a lot of plays for others, and played very good defense at two positions. Now, sadly, his shot has deserted him, and his lack of lateral agility has turned his defense into resembling that of a large traffic cone. It is quite possible he is underplaying due to the lack of talent on his team and the general awfulness of the situation in Brooklyn, but he is getting paid 25 million dollars a year and should be a veteran mentor as well. 11 points per game on 36% shooting from the field and 31% from three in over 34 minutes a game is unacceptable. Just two years ago he was still an above average player who was supremely clutch and could score on anyone. Next year, well, he will be scrapping by on the vet minimum.